In “Boys and Oil,” a Gay Environmentalist Reckons With His Family’s Coal-Mining Legacy
Taylor Brorby explores the intersections between the violence done to his hometown and the terror of growing up queer in rural North Dakota
Growing up in Center, North Dakota—a town with 600 people, no stoplights, and boundless grasslands—Taylor Brorby quickly understood that the coal his family members mined kept him housed and fed even at the expense of his home. But this is all too often the way of the American West’s prairies, a place marked by its simultaneous beauty, grandeur, and harsh extremities. In his coming-of-age memoir Boys and Oil, Brorby perfectly captures the longing for a landscape he clung to as a child while also exploring how there is nowhere to hide when the world around you has been ravaged and scarred by our endless demand for energy.
In lyrical and biting prose, Brorby tells the story of his life up to this point—from growing up gay in the harshness of rural North Dakota to pursuing a larger life and becoming an environmental activist protesting at the Dakota Access Pipeline. He shows us moments of male aggression seeking tenderness and secret romances, as well as the heart of the Bakken oil boom and displays of great resistance. Bound at times by violence but more often by a hopefulness toward what’s possible, these narratives of identity and the environment interlace to create an unforgettable picture of the Great Plains and the people that call it home.
I spoke with Brorby about the intersections between the violence done upon his home and the own terror he’s faced as a gay man growing up in the prairie, advocating for the environment in communities economically tied to oil extraction, and his hopes for the future of literature about the American West.
Michael Welch: Boys and Oil tells the parallel stories about your experience growing up gay in rural North Dakota and your path toward become an environmental activist after seeing the ways oil drilling has fractured your home. How did you see these two threads intertwining and informing the other as you wrote?
Taylor Brorby: They’re so related in the sense that when you’re gay or queer, you don’t fit into what we standardly think of as “rural America.” In that culture, if you’re a boy who likes drawing or anything beyond the standard sort of Friday Night Lights fare, you have to find yourself some place else. For me, that was spending a lot of time out in nature. I didn’t come from a particularly bookish family, and if you were inside, it was sort of like you were going to get musty and die, so I would often be sent outside. My eye was trained on landscapes, and I spent a lot of time fishing and roaming the wheat fields and creeks.
I found that the prairie is such a diverse landscape, but the mental space of the people that tend to occupy the prairie is so monoculture. It’s so odd to me, because even though the prairie is more diverse than the Amazonian jungle because of all the grasses and interwovenness of it, we view it as “flyover country.” I viewed myself as a little diverse, but though it’s supported by the natural world, it’s not in the human imagination in this part of the world. Flyover country gets destroyed; it’s the place where we only have large fields of soybeans, wheat, and corn. Power plants there are the pride of rural America, and it’s true that it supplies necessary power to cities and suburbs, but the destruction of that diverse landscape seems to me directly related to the violence toward queer people in particular.
MW: Early in the book you describe a piece of coal you kept as a kid, saying:
“I’d hold the universe in the making, layer upon layer of Earth’s history—one part dinosaur bone, two parts bird feather, many parts mystery, compressed by millennia.”
I found that view both beautiful and kind of tragic, as it’s something so tied to the Earth that ultimately is used to harm it. How has this view shaped your writing and activism?
TB: You have to remember that coal is actually many lifeforms compressed into a dense form. It’s stunningly beautiful. To me it’s as precious as emeralds or rubies. The hard thing in the landscape of industrial capitalism is that we’re taught to consume things quickly and have shoddy products. I mean, I’m talking with you with my charging cord that’s only two years old and it’s only holding together with electric tape. But coal, like oil, is a precious thing. I don’t see us in a system yet where we can get off of these things, but they should be used sparingly, judiciously, and with reverence. We forget that whenever I start my Prius, that’s starting a fire. We’re all doing it every day when we get in our cars. For coal to be made even more precious, we must burn it to keep the lights on. But as a kid I always kind of knew that there was a deeper sense of time. Not only did coal come from my part of the world, I knew that dinosaurs roamed these lands. I mean, the printing press has barely been around for a half of a millennia, and we’re using a product that has taken thousands and millions of years for us to come and rip from the Earth and burn really quickly. Our sense of time is off, and to think about deep time helps put the times that we’re living in into scale. Coal is worth protecting just like queer children are worth protecting because of the slew of anti-queer legislation upon us. It’s clear as gin in my mind that these are directly from the same source of destruction.
MW: When we talk about environmentalism and the trauma that fracking inflicts, the pessimistic point of “well, this just is how people make their living” always comes up. While your own family’s livelihood came from fossil fuels, you’ve become a devoted environmental activist against projects such as the Dakota Access Pipeline. How do you respond to that tension—if it even is a tension at all?
TB: I think my job is to put my family out of work in that version that I’ve inherited and turn it into something better and cleaner and more perennial. I grew up surrounded by people who bitched about the type of work they had to do, and I thought “that’s how low the bar is.” That’s why we frame things as jobs instead of careers, because jobs are shitty but careers have a longer shelf life. Jobs are like fracking, because it’s an extractive economy. Careers are much more like the prairie; they’re this intermingled relational way of existence. But you can’t have a career as a coal miner because it’s only been around in my part of the world for less than a century. There’s a finite amount of the work, and it brews cancer in the communities where it’s blossoming. None of that is a perk. What you hope is that you’ve been paid a decent enough wage that—God forbid—when cancer comes knocking on your door, you can weather the storm of that. So we need something better. Rural America deserves that. But instead of embracing the diversity of the land, we’ve diminished it to a one-time harvest.
To say that “I’ve grown up in coal country” is an insult because it’s reduced to its lowest common denominator. And that’s not life-honoring work. So for me it’s not tension but instead great sadness, because of course this is how people have to make their life because this is what capitalism does.
MW: It’s really interesting to hear you talk about how closely the human body and the land are tied, and it makes me think about your time in Dickinson in and around the Bakken oil fields where you frequently came across apparel and bumper stickers reading things like “Going Deep,” “Pumping Hard,” and “Frack That Hole.” What do you make of this co-opting of language about sexual violence against the body with what is a violence against the Earth itself?
TB: Well for one thing, North Dakota is always number one for binge drinking. People are very prideful from the part of the world I come from. I grew up with this myth that everyone told me about how people from across the country love the North Dakota work ethic. But having lived in many places across the country now, I can say that most people don’t even know where North Dakota is. It’s just a lie. People must know that their existence is hard scrabble, so they pump themselves full of liquor and cream and unhealthy food. And every bad idea the country has had has been tested in North Dakota. The genocide of Native American people. The reservation system. Hydraulics, the damming of the Missouri River, and the flooding of indigenous land because of that. Monoculture agriculture. Fracking. Homophobia. There are literally nuclear missiles underneath us because during the Cold War, farmers said they’d willingly give up their land so that we could aim missiles across the ice caps toward Russia. The former mascot of the University of North Dakota was the “Fighting Sioux” that all the white people loved, but when there were actual Sioux in 2016 demanding clean drinking water, everybody came out in their racist stripes. In these spaces, it’s very risky to be a woman, to be a person of color, to be queer. It tells you everything in those bumper stickers that this is how we view people and the Earth. They think the Earth is female, and they use and objectify females. It’s violent.
MW: That has me thinking about the ways violence in language becomes violence in action. You explore how you had to live fear as a gay man growing up in the rural West, and you also mention a few times Matthew Shephard, a gay University of Wyoming student who was killed near Laramie in 1998. How did you see these present dangers affect the way you viewed your home?
TB: Let me be clear: you cannot safely be who you want to be in Center, North Dakota come hell or high water. One of the things you have to learn growing up in rural America is how to code switch. It’s not lost on me that even at this late day in 2022 that if I put my hand on a man’s thigh for long enough in that town of 600 people, I probably wouldn’t be safe getting out of the county that night. And I think that’s actually in a majority of America, because this is just where we are, the narratives we tell, and the violence we allow.
When I think about my Grandpa Hatzenbihler, the first and last thing you had to do when you walked into or out of his house was give him a hug. And I remember one time one of my male cousins didn’t give him a hug because he had a girlfriend with him, and my grandpa openly narrated it and berated him—which brought me great satisfaction! To me what that signaled was that love should be physical and tender, and also that men shouldn’t be hardened toward affection.
Speaking of Matthew Shephard, I once got ran down the hallway in Laramie, Wyoming when I was doing a reading because a guy hijacked my conversation with two women and told me “you can’t fucking talk right now.” This is real life still. It’s not really great to be gay if you’re in Great Falls, Montana or Rawlins, Wyoming. You have to learn how to be someone you’re not, because literally the bar is so low that it looks like survival. Anyone who’s viewed as different can be a death sentence in the wrong place at the wrong time.
MW: That makes a lot of sense, because it definitely seems that all the boys you grew up around were coding their affection to one another through shows of aggression. You even write that “nothing, after all, survives on the prairie being tender.” In an environment where tenderness is received with hostility, where did you find your first examples of what non-toxic love looks like?
TB: I had the great benefit of kind grandparents. I had the world’s greatest grandpas, and I continue to do all of my writing at the desk my Grandpa Brorby made for me when I was eight. He loved woodworking, and every summer he performed in the small town musical. He worked at the coal mines and yet loved joking with men and could fit in while still being creative and passionate about art.
And my Grandpa Hatzenbihler was a character for the ages. My favorite thing we did was go pick berries together, and when I say that it sounds so queer in the absolute best way. He was this big, sausage and cream-fed man who was so big in my mind, and he’d lower branches that were too tall for me to reach. I also to this day still can’t touch worms, but my grandpa would never belittle me like other men in my life would. It was this sort of gentle thing, like we don’t even have to acknowledge it or make a comment like “you have to be tough because we live on the prairie.” I’d come to understand that beauty is important because my grandparents recognized it, whether it be sanding and staining a piece of myrtlewood or picking berries. In the part of the world I grew up with, those moments had to be private so that you could present yourself in a different way in public, but as I grew up, I learned that those things could be celebrated.
MW: What do you hope to see in narratives about the West and its land moving forward?
TB: I hope to see narratives where it isn’t just Westerners showing their soft underbellies and saying “take everything we have and we’ll be grateful,” because it’s a one-time harvest. I mean, I hope we see a cacophony of voices. We need stories of staying and understanding. And there are regions in the West that I’m not sure we are meant to have permanence in. I mean people in Phoenix will hate me for saying this, but having a green lawn in Phoenix is just like, oh my god. In Lake Mead just last week, one of the water intake systems that gives to Las Vegas is above the water mark. It’s not the future, we’re in it now. We need to have real conversations about the times we’re in and the amount of people a landscape can support.
What’s troublesome is that it’s always the vulnerable that’s going to be screwed by this. I’m hoping that we see voices rise up that challenge the narrative that says that a first line of defense is for people to write narratives where minority groups feel seen. Being seen is not enough. Being seen has to then launch a second wave of saying “yeah, we’re here and now that wave is rising to challenge and subvert things.” I wrote this book because I wanted it to exist and I wanted it to be on a bookshelf and to feel seen. Now I want queer people on the Great Plains not to overthrow in that cliched term, but rise up and say “we are active and deserve a place at the table.” Our perspective is not only valuable, it’s also the way we need to move forward. It’s the model for compassion and safety in a time where everything is on the line.